Thomas More vs. Martin Luther

Forget Batman vs. SupermanThat’s for kids. This is the grown-up stuff.

It seems some folks are in a lather over the depiction of Thomas More in the British series Wolf Hall, set in the court of King Henry VIII. In short, the series, based on a couple of novels by Hilary Mantel, paints More as pretty much as I’ve tended to see him: a rather vicious sort.

Huh? SAINT Thomas More, the Man for All Seasons, the martyr to conscience—vicious? Well, in Mantel’s telling, he was pretty much a heretic-hunting, power-hungry fanatic, and it was Thomas Cromwell who was, if not exactly a saint, a pretty decent “fixer” who we can recognize as something of a modern, and moderate, conciliator, someone who wouldn’t let dogma get in the way of greasing the wheels of governmental efficiency, and saving his own head, temporarily, in the process.

Mark Movesian, over at First Things, sees Wolf Hall and More’s refusal to assent to the “arrangements” set up by Henry & Co. as a reflection on contemporary controversies: “secular liberals are losing patience with claims for religious liberty, particularly from traditionalists who dissent from progressive orthodoxy.” And George Weigel pulls no punches, claiming that “Hillary Mantel is a very talented, very bitter ex-Catholic who’s said that the Church today is ‘not an institution for respectable people.'” Hence her More.

The depictions of both More and Cromwell are exaggerations, if not distortions, of the historical figures, of course. Scholar Eamon Duffy, author of Stripping of the Altars, which goes to great pains to argue that the English Reformation was a giant boo-boo because the Christian religion was doing just fine in England, even as he goes on to describe a grotesque piety that focused on the horrific tortures of a fictitious purgatory, is both distressed about More’s sullied reputation and frank about More’s not-so-benign intentions toward what are now the separated brethren :

One of the avowed motives of Wolf Hall was to correct the idealised picture of A Man for All Seasons. In this unforgettable but misleading portrait, More featured as an icon for twentieth-century liberals, defending the rights of the individual against a coercive society. Bolt projected on to his hero opinions More would have indignantly repudiated; Mantel’s starker portrait has sixteenth-century warrant, and far greater plausibility.

For it is perfectly true that as a Crown agent, and then as Lord Chancellor, More did pursue heretics. He never presided at a heresy trial (no layman could) and he never condemned anyone to death for their religious beliefs. In his autobiographical Apology, he refuted the charges of torture and maltreatment of suspects that Wolf Hall reports, accusations that, through John Foxe’s hostile elaboration in his Elizabethan propaganda work, Actes and Monuments, nevertheless persisted down the centuries.

In an age when all but one of the bishops had perjured themselves by signing up to the Royal Supremacy, More died rather than swear an oath he did not believe. We can therefore trust his solemn insistence that no one in his custody for heresy had ever suffered “so much as a flip on the forehead”, much less been tortured. Yet in the 1520s, he was undoubtedly the most active agent in Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey’s campaign against heresy. In collaboration with the gentle humanist Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, More led a series of nocturnal raids on London houses and warehouses in search of forbidden Lutheran books and, as was routine in that age, he imprisoned and interrogated suspects in his house in Chelsea.

In the early 1530s, he wrote thousands of pages of ferocious polemic against the Reformation, defending the execution of stubborn heretics in language whose violence can make even the most ardent admirer quail. Heretics at the stake, he insisted, were “the devil’s stinking martyrs”, not men of conscience but “mischievous persons” driven by “desire of a large liberty to an unbridled lewdness”. He insisted that unrepentant heretics were “well burnt” and went “straight from the temporal fire to the eternal”.

I happen to have a copy of More’s Dialogue concerning Heresies (but you knew that already). I also have a copy of Tyndale’s An Answer unto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge [sic], which you didn’t know and stop saying you did.

Let’s read together, shall we?

More was, unlike many of his more gaseous and grandiloquent confreres, a lively, mostly lucid, and at times genuinely funny writer. The Dialogue, praised by no less than C.S. Lewis as perhaps the best of the genre written in English, has More patiently talking a young interlocutor down from the perilous precipice of the Reformers’ highfalutin claims. Let’s focus for a minute on More’s conception of Luther and his ideas.

Apparently, More had read enough of the Reformer to get some of his views right, had heard or read quotes that seem more radical than they were when put back into their original context, and had probably believed too much gossip.

He begins a chapter on Luther by referring to him as a “foolish friar,” “an apostate,” “an overt incestuous lecher, a plain agent of the devil, and a manifest messenger of hell.” And that’s on a good day. I won’t linger on this, because old Marty Lu could certainly give as good as he got, and often better, so let More spit venom all he likes. More important are his construals of Luther’s teaching.

A few examples:

“Item: He [Luther] teaches that faith alone suffices for our salvation with our baptism, without good works. He says also that it is sacrilege to attempt to please God with any works and not with faith alone.

“Item: That no one can do any good work.

“Item: That the good and righteous always sin in doing well.

“Item: That no sin can damn any Christian, but only lack of belief. For he says that our faith swallows up all our sins, however great they may be.”

Crudely put in succinct succession, but More gets the crux of Luther’s radical critique of the works-righteousness of their day.

More More:

Item: He says it would be best that people never be given Communion but once in their life. And that never till they lie a-dying, just as they are but once christened and that at their beginning.

Now I can’t find a source for that notion, but it sounds like something Luther would have written or said off-the-cuff to get a rise out of people or to emphasis the primary role of faith. But it certainly was not Luther’s actual understanding of the need for the sacrament, as More himself admits when writing:

Item: He teaches that every man and woman should take the holy sacrament, and not refrain from touching it and handling it as much as they please.

Item: He says that the Blessed Sacrament is ordained by God to be received, but not to be worshipped.

Now that sounds like Luther. This too:

Item: He teaches that people should go to Mass as well after supper as before breakfast, and in their regular clothes, as they go all day, without candlelight or any other honorific ritual used therein.

Imagine the peasants showing up in less than their Sunday best!

Item: He teaches that there is no purgatory.

Item: That all people’s souls lie still and sleep till Judgement Day.

Now the first point is undeniable, and is also the teaching of the Eastern Orthodox. Purgatory is, I believe, good Prot that I am, a myth, an invention predicated upon a faulty notion of sanctification. The Orthodox believe in a form of penance, but for this life only. Lutherans have a problem with penance as well, because we believe that Jesus’s radical deconstruction of a quantitative view of sin makes penances, even for the so-called temporal penalties in this life, meaningless.

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

I believe Jesus is saying more than just that the thought is father of the act, but that the very impulse to inflict pain on or to objectify another person demonstrates a radical evil for which there is no salve, no grace-aided undoing. You can apologize for calling someone a fool but you cannot take it back. It cannot be undone. The idea that a set number of prayers or fasting or almsgiving somehow undoes the “penalty” that God would otherwise inflict is religion at its most clueless. Christ came to take away both the sin of the world and the futile pious gestures of penitential religion.

But I digress (and that was supposed to be the comment I was going to leave on Gene Veith’s blog post regarding Jerry Walls’s new book on purgatory for Protestants but didn’t get a chance because I was at work and then I forgot and then the dinosaurs came…).

As for soul sleep, I believe Tyndale also taught this, as picked up by an early Luther opinion, but I don’t think Luther sustained this idea throughout his career and it may have been an early broadside on the devotions to saints that had completely dominated the piety and devotions of his day. After all, if the metaphor of being “asleep in the Lord” meant that the believer who had died was now unconscious, even in spirit, then praying to anyone other than God was a thoroughgoing waste of time. Jesus had become such a remote figure, He whom only priests could handle, and the Just Judge of the Last Day who virtually breathed hellfire, that Mary, Joseph, and any of the other denominated, and purely human, saints must surely be more merciful and likely to mediate a poor peasant’s needs than would the ever-irritable Son of God.

Where More shows either desperation or a penchant for gossip or just an unwillingness to check his facts is on the subject of Luther’s motives.

[S]omething worth considering—how this wicked friar began to put together these evil theses. You must understand that there was an indulgence service held in Saxony, for which service, in accord with the custom there, Luther was the preacher; and he preached to the people, encouraging them to participate in it, and supporting its legitimacy, all that he possibly could, not without great advantage to himself. Then, soon after, it so happened that the giving of the service, with the advantage thereof, was taken from him and assigned to someone else. For anger over which he fell into such a fury that forthwith he began to write against all grantings of indulgences. However, because the thesis was new and foreign, he began first by way of doubts and questions only, submitting himself and his writings to the judgment of the Pope, and requesting to be informed of the truth. Whereupon, when he was answered in writing by the master of the papal palace, he then grew more enraged and started ranting against him, and wrote also another book, against the power of the pope, affirming that his power over the Church was never instituted by God, but was established only by the joint agreement of Christian people, for the avoiding of schisms. But yet he said that all Christians were obliged to submit to it and obey the pope, and that the Bohemians were damnable heretics for doing the contrary.

The Dialogue was written in 1528 and Luther’s own description of his Tower Experience, his “conversion,” that epiphany regarding how the just live by faith, was not written down in any detail until after More’s death. But the Reformer had certainly published enough by 1528 to make this silly accusation—that as soon as Luther stopped making money off of indulgences, he decided to turn the entire Christian faith upside down—unworthy of credence by someone of More’s intelligence.

Moreover (see what I did there?), More offers no evidence to buttress this accusation, and given the amount of Luther he obviously had read, or perhaps had read second-hand, this reductive explanation is both petty and childish.

As for the claim that Luther began his public career demonstrating fealty to the pope and appealing to a general council to arbitrate the truth of his theology, this is true enough. Luther didn’t burst onto the scene breathing fire and challenging all authority. There is both a development in his thought (read his commentary on Romans and then compare it to his commentary on Galatians) and a growing frustration with the hierarchy, power structure, and inability to genuinely debate such issues that were deemed settled by Rome, which demanded only assent. (In fact, Cajetan was instructed by Rome not to debate with Luther in 1518 but merely to press him to recant.)

Now, one charge More could legitimately lay at Luther’s feet is that once you assert that only Scripture is infallible, and that councils, creeds, theologians, popes, bishops can err, well, who can possibly prove you wrong if you insist you’re right (even as you cannot claim infallibility for yourself)? Even if Luther had managed to contrive a debate between himself and the finest theologians of Rome, who would Luther have recognized as the final arbiter of biblical truth? Who could ever have convinced Luther he was wrong? (And do we have here, along with the birth of individual judgement in such matters, the birth, truly, of the freedom of the individual conscience?)

More spends a considerable amount of time in his Dialogue addressing the Reformers’ complaints about what the Faith had degenerated into. He takes on veneration of the saints, relics, pilgrimages, and fraudulent and superstitious claims about such things. He talks about the debauchery and corruption of some clergy. He challenges sola fide and especially sola scriptura, making much the same argument that Vincent of Lérins made back in the fifth century*. Even if you were to grant that Scripture was materially sufficient for the forming of right doctrine, who does the interpreting? There isn’t a heretic in the history of the church who hasn’t used the Scriptures to his advantage, including Arius and Nestorius. Even the devil quotes Scripture!

Argue all you like about this or that passage from the New Testament — for More, the church has the final say, and that conclusion he gets from Scripture itself:

For the Holy Spirit was not sent into this world to dwell here with the apostles forever, for they did not dwell here that long. Now, if the Spirit of truth will dwell in the Church forever, how can the Church err in perceiving of the truth, in such things, I mean, as God will bind it to know or that will be necessary for it to know? For only to such things was our Lord referring when he said that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things. For as Saint Paul says, the manifestation and showing of the Spirit is for utility and profit (1 Cor 12: 7). Also, of this Holy Spirit it was not promised by Christ our Savior that he would only tell his church again his words,  but he said further, ‘I have,” he said, ‘besides all this, many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them now. But when he shall come that is the Spirit of truth, he shall lead you into all truth’ (Jn 16: 12-13). Note that our Lord said not that the Holy Spirit would write to his church all truth, but that he would lead them, by secret inspiration and inclination of their hearts into all truth. which must necessarily include both information and right belief of every essential article, and of the right and true sense of holy Scripture, as far as will be requisite to conserving the Church from any condemnable error.

Now, when the Holy Spirit will, by God’s promise, be for this purpose abiding in the Church forever, and Christ himself has also said that he will not leave his church as orphans, but will come himself and be with it to the end of the world, and says also that his Father is in him and he is in his Father, and that his Father and he are both one entity—not both one person, but both one substance and, with the Holy Spirit, both one God—then it must necessarily follow that to the world’s end there is residing with the Church the whole Trinity. Whose active presence being to the Church perpetual, how can it at any time fall from the try faith into false errors and heresies?

This line of argument has become the bedrock foundation of all Catholic apologetics, and with good reason: why should a Catholic care what a Luther, a Calvin, a Menno Simons, a Servetus, or a Wesley think about anything? Where do they come by their authority? And what is it but only their own judgment? And did Christ promise to be with Luther or Calvin or Wesley always?

And yet: wasn’t God with his chosen people, Israel? And didn’t they fall into idol worship?

I would think a reasonable rejoinder is that Israel’s apostasy was just that: not a matter of wrong doctrine but simple disobedience. They went after strange gods. In other words, Israel knew better, which made their sin all the worse. The Catholic Church, however, is convinced its devotions (even to the saints), piety, and doctrine is God’s truth, and that it is the heretics who have fallen into idol worship, the worship of their own vain opinions.

As for the violence inflicted on said heretics, both the accused and the convicted, More says, basically, “They started it.”

For albeit that right after the death of Christ, at the beginning of the Church, many sects and heresies began (as is well evidenced by the Book of Revelation, written by Saint John the Evangelist, and by the Epistles of the apostle Paul), and after that, almost continually, various heresies sprang up in various places … yet in all that time, a long space of many years, there was virtually never any punishment inflicted on those heretics other than refutings and disprovings done in disputations, either oral or written, or condemnations of their opinions by synods and councils, or, finally, excommunication and expulsion from Christ’s flock; except that sometimes they were put to silence on pain of forfeiture of a certain amount of money.

But … if heretics had never started with the violence, then even if they had used all the ways they could to lure the people by preaching, even if they had thereby done what Luther does now and Muhammad did before—bring into vogue opinions pleasing to the people, giving them license for licentiousness—yet if they had left violence alone, good Christian people would perhaps all the way up to this day have used less violence toward them than they do now. And yet heresy well deserves to be punished as severely as any other sin, since there is no sin that more offends God. However, as long as they refrained from violence, there was little violence done to them. And certainly though God is able against all persecution to preserve and increase his faith among the people, as he did in the beginning, for all the persecution inflicted by the pagans and the Jews, that is still no reason to expect Christian princes to allow the Catholic Christian people to be oppressed by Turks or by heretics worse than Turks.

So less violence, but not no violence.

I think it’s fair to say that Thomas More was less a man for all seasons and more a man of his time, lest we forget that Protestants in various places and at various times have punished heretics, deemed threats to the state, too.

I sometimes think that the true article upon which the church stands or falls is not justification, but authority. Who decides anything for the church? Who decides what is necessary for salvation? Who decides even what salvation means? From what, for what?

Forget about Rome for a moment. When I read Eastern Orthodox sources, I feel as if I’m reading about a different religion altogether—and I don’t mean that snarkily: I just don’t recognize Eastern Christianity when compared with the Western Protestant variety, even though there are aspects of Orthodoxy I find very attractive.

I was tooling around the Web a few days ago and came across this blog post. A convert to Orthodoxy was lamenting the death of a priest:

In between feelings of confusion and anger, I kept returning to a scripture that has stuck in my head since the first time I read it.

Tucked away like a treasure—often neglected or unknown by many—the Wisdom of Solomon reflects on the death of the righteous. Beyond this, it dares to ask: Why death? Who do we blame for all of this suffering, and why does it persist? (A similar narrative can be found in the book of Job, where his own friends become accusers—become Satan himself—in the wake of personal tragedy.)

As a Calvinist, I might be motivated to “lay the blame” at God’s feet. He is completely sovereign, and therefore whatever takes place is ultimately his responsibility. When a sudden death occurs, it might be beyond our understanding, but it all has a deeper purpose as part of “God’s plan.”

But is that really the answer? Is God that ambivalent towards the death of the living? That calculated, distant, and cold?

In Wisdom, we read (1:12–16):

God did not create death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away, and they made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his party.

Here, it seems that mankind has summoned death through our own selfish actions. Much like Adam and Eve in the Paradise of Eden, we have preferred the transitory pleasures of this world to the eternal rewards of the age to come. We take the easy way out.

But perhaps most importantly, Wisdom tells us that “God did not create death,” nor does he “delight in the death of the living.” Instead, he has “created all things that they might exist” and the “dominion of Hades” is not on earth. Hades, being the “place of the dead” in both ancient Greek mythology and later Christian theology, would certainly seem to have dominion in this present, evil age—just look at what happened this past week, after all. But what Wisdom suggests is that if we view death as having dominion, we are not seeing the world as we should. We are lacking eyes to see.

Further, we are reminded that death is not the end of our story as the people of God. The righteous are destined for an eternal and immortal existence, dwelling with the Saints and surrounded by all the angels in the throne room of eternity (something we experience ever briefly in the Divine Liturgy). While death is a sudden, and even tragic thing in this life, it is not the final word:

For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it.
—Wis. 2:23–24

It’s often said “death is only natural.” This is entirely inaccurate. Death is un-natural. In fact, death is the most unnatural thing in this present life, which is why we find it so shocking and painful.

We were created for incorruption, intended for a life without end. God is Life himself, and in him, we share in that true Life. Death is everything that is contrary to or opposed to God. This is why when Christ our God condescended to die on the Cross, death itself was vanquished, for death could not tolerate the presence of true Life.

What we learn from Wisdom is that death has entered the world through the envy of the devil (cf. Heb. 2:14). By Satan’s deception, Adam and Eve followed a path apart from God, being therefore separated from Life. “God did not create death, and he does not delight in the death of the living,” for:

[T]he souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.
—Wis. 3:2–4

There is no denying that death is real, and that it presents a source of strife in the here-and-now. But as Christians, we must remember that death is not “part of God’s plan,” so to speak. It is contrary to everything God is about, and so God did something about it. He sent his only Son to live, die, and conquer Hades itself.

And how did that Son, walking this earth as one of us and faced with the death of his friend Lazarus respond? “He wept” (John 11:35). Death was a shock and pain even for the God-Man Jesus Christ. And in that moment, surrounded by his grieving friends and loved ones, the Son of God provided a glimpse of what’s to come—a glimpse of our own destiny as God’s children in him. He shows us the resurrection, the peace of immortality that awaits the righteous faithful in Christ. He shows us what God does for his friends.

With the ultimate day of resurrection approaching, the nearness and reality of death will seem ever more apparent for me in light of everything that’s recently taken place. But with our eyes laid on Christ and the victory we have over death in him, we should not fall victim to despair.

We should not look upon our faithful, fallen brothers and sisters as those forgotten or forsaken by God. Their departure is not a true affliction, nor is it destruction. There is no doubt in my mind that tears were shed by the Son of God on their behalf, even in the throne room of heaven. And with this peace in mind, we should be ever mindful of our own mortality and the need for repentance.

In the Eastern liturgical tradition, we repeatedly refer to God as “the lover of mankind.” So may our God who loves mankind make their memories to be eternal, and may we all journey towards Pascha with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. With a knowledge that God is love, that death is swallowed up in victory, and that at the death of human beings our loving God weeps.

For God did not create death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.

I think it’s fair to say that most confessional Protestants, especially of the Reformed stripe, would view God’s sovereignty in such a way that this line of argumentation would be nonsensical.

How many times have I heard from confessional, conservative Protestants of all stripes, “Well, you know, we all deserve to go to hell. That God saves anyone is a sheer act of grace,” which makes Hell, or Gehenna—that garbage dump in Jerusalem that was for Jews in the intertestamental period a picture of postmortem remorse—the natural home of the vast majority of everyone ever born. The Orthodox, no doubt, find it hard to credit a description of God as the lover of mankind, never mind notions of the sanctity of human life, in light of Western perceptions of original sin, particular election, and God’s justice.** But then again, the Eastern Orthodox don’t believe in “original sin,” at least not as the West construes it, and lay the very notion at the feet of the Latin Father Augustine, not Scripture.

Which is what makes the Lutheran idea of universal objective justification so compelling. In keeping with traditional Protestant theology, it affirms that everyone is born an object of God’s wrath, because of an inherited sin condition—but also loved from before the foundation of the world, because of the Cross. But the twist is this: when Jesus cried, “It is finished,” it was really finished. God need look nowhere else for justice nor need we look anywhere else for mercy. No one ever has to go to hell, because God’s wrath and love meet at Calvary. That doesn’t mean no one does, only that no one has to in order for God to manifest his justice in light of sin. Even Luther’s own double predestination is rejected here.

What made Luther such a hellacious figure for the likes of More, and so fascinating for so many today, is that he was quite frank about how, as an Augustinian monk, he had come to hate the God who sends sinners to hell, burdening them with both an unasked-for predisposition to sin and a predestination to perdition for the reprobate. Given that assurance of salvation was mere presumption, one could never know whether you were reprobate. Luther could find no peace in all his fasts, ascetic practices, prayers, and self-abasement. Telling God what a worm he was could only be old news to the Just Judge.

Meanwhile, I had already during that year returned to interpret the Psalter anew. I had confidence in the fact that I was more skillful, after I had lectured in the university on St. Paul’s epistles to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the one to the Hebrews. I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was not the cold blood about the heart,but a single word in Chapter 1[:17], “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.  (Luther’s Works, Volume 34, P336-337).

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.  (Luther’s Works, Volume 34, P336-337).

If one wanted to be charitable, purgatory could be construed as an attempt to give sinners hope. The God who created hell, eternal torment, had to get his licks in somehow, even among the faithful baptized, so why not create an intermediate state for the saved? There were already intimations of such a state found in Jewish thought of the intertestamental period. After all, it was more likely that the mass of the masses were just crummy Christians than truly evil and faithless, so hell seemed a bit like overkill. And yet hoi poloi had to have placarded before them the prospect of some kind of punishment to keep them in line, as well as to satisfy an ever-wrathful deity for whom even the blood of his own Son was insufficient to cover the temporal punishments for wrongdoing. (Of course, there were always indulgences, but there were conditions attached to these, too.)

Read Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars. Read the horrors that were dreamt up to trouble the consciences of English Catholics. And while such torments wouldn’t last forever, they could go on for hundreds, even thousands of “years.” Which is why those with means paid for Masses to be said after they died, which vicariously burned the karma, so to speak, of the “poor souls” enduring the purification ritual that flayed the last vestige of “self” from the soul.

From The Stripping of the Altars:

English perceptions of the nature of Purgatory in the late Middle Ages were less coherent or at least less carefully nuanced, and altogether grimmer [than that depicted in Dante’s poem La Commedia]. In the first place, there was a general agreement that, at least as far as its activities and staff were concerned, Purgatory was an out-patient department of Hell, rather that the antechamber of Heaven. Purgatory, according to The Ordynarye of Crysten Men, “is one part of hell and the place of right mervaylous payne.” In Purgatory, declared [John] Fisher, “is so great acerbate of pines that no difference is betweene the paynes of hell and them, but only eternity, the paynes of helle be eternal, and the paynes of purgatory have an ende.” There were other similarities to Hell. The collect used in celebrations of the Trental of St Gregory asked for deliverance “out of the hands of evil spirits.” The ministers of punishment in Purgatory, according to Thomas More, are “cruel damned spirites, odious, envious and hateful, despitous enemies.” This conviction was given lurid imaginative expression. In the vision of Sir Owen, the revelation to the Monk of Eynsham, and the “Reuelacyone schewed to ane holy woman,” as well as in the revelations of St. Bridget, devils “ranne ouer all lyke as madde men and were also full cruell and wodde apone tho wrechys.” In addition to mocking and reproaching them, they scourge them, roll them in spiked barrels, boil them till they melt, choke them with scalding pitch, and rend their flesh with irons. . . .

So strong an emphasis on the pains of Purgatory, whatever its pedagogic and corrective intentions, must clearly have developed an impetus of its own. Every week the parish priest bid the people pray “for all the saules that abydes the mercy of god in the paynes of purgatory.” Those pains were a vivid reality to his listeners. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century wills abound in instructions which make clear the testators’ urgent concern that the alms-giving and intercession which would shorten their torments should begin at the earliest possible moment. Wills asks for “Diriges” and doles “as hastily as possible . . . after my departing from this world” or “as sone as I am deade w’toute eny tarrying,” trentals “to be done me from the houre of my dethe unto the tyme of my buriall,” scores of Masses “to be song wher they may be sooest getton.” . . .

The motif of the child whose prayers, good works, and penance secure release for the soul of the unshriven parent was a potent one in late medieval thinking about the cult of the dead, and the popular and influential legend of the Pope Trental, in which St Gregory the Great rescued his sinful and unshriven mother’s soul from Purgatory, or perhaps even Hell, by an elaborate sequence of Masses, fasts, and other mortuary observances, was based on it. But the intercessory powers and obligations of kinship extended wider than the relationship between parent and child. A fifteenth-century chronicle tells of a shipman of Weymouth who goes on pilgrimage to Compostella to have Masses said there for his parents. On his return he is haunted by the ghost of his uncle, who tells him that he has been trying to speak with him for nine years, and who demands that he return as a penniless beggar to Compostella to have Mass said and to distribute alms for him, for “yef thou haddest lete say a masse for me, I had be delivered of the payn that I suffer.” The nephew duly sets out once more for Compostella. One of the attractions of the enormously popular prayers on the passion known as the “Fifteen Oes” of St Brigid was the prefatory rubric, which promised that if anyone said them daily for a year “he shall deliver xv souls out of purgatory of his next kindred, and convert other sinners to gode lyf, and other xv ryghteous men of his kynde shall persever in good lyf.”

As for me, I always think of this when the subject of Purgatory comes up.

In the end, old More was fighting for the only church he knew, the only authority he knew, and the only apparatus he knew for silencing ungodly voices from swaying vulnerable minds. He feared everything would come apart if there weren’t some central authority to hold the church, and Christendom, together.

And he was right about that last bit, at least. And who is to say that my or your opinions about purgatory or justification or the saints or anything else under the sun isn’t just a matter of personal persuasion and psychological disposition? If it’s a matter of a bold move of the Spirit, why are Christians baptized with the same Spirit at such odds about which confession has the truth?

I find much of Lutheran teaching attractive and persuasive because, well, I find it attractive and persuasive. Does that make it true?

What if I’m wrong? Who has the authority—not the proof texts—but the authority to tell me otherwise, to tell me not merely that Scripture is the Word of God and infallible, but what it all means.

I’m just grateful I live in a time and place where my beliefs, however I come by them, don’t get me sent to the rack.

For now.

St. William Tyndale, pray for us!

(Just kidding…)

UPDATE: Someone posted on Friendface a link to this “Strange Quote of the Day” from December 2013. I had forgotten about it completely. It was probably precipitated by the whole sanctification debate that broke out like a heat rash earlier that year. I do think Giertz’s reference to penance is the exception that proves my rule: how many Lutheran pastors include a “penance” upon granting absolution in private confession? For that matter, how many Lutherans avail themselves of private confession? (Full disclosure: I have never, as I have never wanted to be responsible for consigning a man of the cloth to a catatonic state the likes of which have not been seen in the annals of medical science since that Jim Jarmusch film left paralyzed a subsection of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.)

Given that Giertz rejects the idea of “satisfaction” coram deo in regard to penance, it seems that what he is counseling is little more than commonsense recompense: Did you steal? Repay the person you stole from. Did you insult someone? Ask that person to forgive you. Did you neglect a duty? Do it. I guess one could say such a “penance” is merely a kind of justification by works coram mundi


* Although St. Vincent, unlike More, did not acknowledge an oral tradition equal to the written, only the authority of councils to interpret Scripture over and against the various theories of heretics. For a smart contemporary Catholic take on Vincent’s famous rule: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus credituni est (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”), see Thomas Guarino’s Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine.

**Here’s something else to addle your noodle: Late in the Dialogue, More laces into Luther’s notion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and what we would call monergism: “that the liberty of the human will serves absolutely no purpose, nor do people’s deeds, good or bad, make any difference before God, but in his chosen people nothing displeases him, be it no matter how bad, and in the other group nothing pleases him, be it no matter how good—[this is] the worst and most harmful heresy that ever was thought out, and, on top of that, the most insane.”

Now that’s a trifle stilted and simplistic rendering of the Reformer’s teaching, but given the popular theology of the day (what was taught in the schools was probably more nuanced), you can understand More’s outrage at what was to him a repellent idea, given that free will was believed to be what rendered God’s final judgment “just.” What I find baffling is how a man of More’s erudition evinces not a whiff of the Augustinian tradition as it worked its way through Catholic church history. St. Vincent of Lérins, it should be noted, knew of Augustine’s teachings on grace—and apparently despised them, because he thought them novelties. So was Augustinianism the first heresy to root itself within the Catholic tradition? Or is Reformation Christianity more Catholic than More could ever have credited it for being?



6 thoughts on “Thomas More vs. Martin Luther

  1. ” Who has the authority—not the proof texts—but the authority to tell me otherwise, to tell me not merely that Scripture is the Word of God and infallible, but what it all means.”

    Catholic Answer: The Catholic Church.
    Lutheran Answer: No one.

    Which is why Protestants have been so busy multiplying denominations for the last 500 years, and Catholics, not so much.

    I am a member of a Lutheran church myself, but find I have strong sympathies with More on this point…


  2. Lutherans have a “paper pope” in the Book of Concord. For Lutherans the confessions answer the question of authority. “Who has the authority?” is answered by Lutheranism in 1580 with the Book of Concord. To say the Lutheran answer is “No one” is not quite right.


    1. Well the Book of Concord hasn’t exactly worked out very well for us, as we have the LCMS, ELCA, NALC, WELS, the LCMC, and probably some others, all of whom profess some allegiance to the Book of Concord, but in practice end up looking quite different. So there is still the question of authority – who gets to decide what the Book of Concord mean, or how much of it still applies?


  3. Yes, Thomas More wrote eloquently, but the words he spoke were as the Bible might describe…as “drawn swords.” Indeed, honor him if you wish, glance over lightly his ruthlessness, and consider the blood on his hands and the martyrs who were killed during his watch. Perhaps, not by More’s own hands….but certainly with his encouragement and full culpability.


  4. Truth doesn’t rest on authority, but on evidence. The Luther/Lutheran (orthodox) is that Scripture is the evidence. Who’s interpretation is correct is based on what comports to the Biblical text in it’s natural context (recall Rome had 4 different interpretation methods). Rome would say what their church says, but their church has said contradictory things (see purgatory). So how can this be a reliable authority. The Scripture has not said contradictory things.


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